In VENGEANCE, a funny and well-acted new feature-length black comedy thriller, writer Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak) is searching for his next big project. He networks at parties in Manhattan, texts with his many random hookups, and talks about big ideas he’s “100%” in on.
VENGEANCE is B.J. Novak’s directorial debut. He wrote the movie and stars in it as well. This film feels distinctly American, the story of a family grieving the death of their young daughter, Abilene. She apparently died of an opioid overdose at “The Afterparty,” a spot in the Texas desert where people go to party hard. Ben gets a phone call from Abilene’s bereaved brother – – Abilene apparently told her family that she was in a serious relationship with Ben, but Ben hardly knows who she is. He agrees to fly from New York to West Texas to attend her funeral.
When he gets there, her brother, Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook), insists that there’s more to the story.
Maybe Abilene didn’t die accidentally, after all, he tells Ben. It’s possible she was murdered. Ben, a podcast journalist, senses a juicy story in the making. He envisions the next viral “Dead White Girl” podcast series, as he and his boss, played by Issa Rae, imagine the success the project will bring to them.
Ben meets Abilene’s family and starts to bond with them, learning a lot about Texas culture. Paris (Isabella Amara), El Stupido/Mason (Eli Bickel), and Jasmine (Dove Cameron) give shining performances as Abilene’s siblings. Then, to get a feel for the town, Ben meets locals, including Abilene’s small-time music producer, played by Ashton Kutcher.
VENGEANCE is a satire of the podcast industry that completely deconstructs the medium from the inside out. In today’s creative storytelling landscape, VENGEANCE posits, everyone has an angle and a hot take. It’s impossible to ignore the ubiquity of podcasts in American culture right now, especially the tireless internet sleuths of the true-crime genre. If you aren’t creating a brand for yourself and using your own unique voice, VENGEANCE asks, are you even really living?
B.J. Novak’s feature directorial debut is so good it’s almost too good; it’s polished, clear, pretty, and engaging. Novak, of course, grew popular from his role on “The Office,” of which he directed several episodes around the early 2010s. He then directed a couple of episodes of “The Mindy Project,” and two episodes of “The Premise.” As the writer and star of the film, Novak takes center stage, but he never steals the spotlight away, giving the other actors space to deliver solid performances.
You’d be hard-pressed to find an American family who hasn’t been touched in some way by addiction or by the opioid epidemic. VENGEANCE tells the story of one family’s struggle to find the truth of their loved one’s overdose, with no easy answers but plenty of heart. Novak’s first movie is bound to be a hit. It’s likable and funny and a timely portrait of the many faces of 2020s America, from Texas to New York.
At 107 minutes, VENGEANCE flies by. VENGEANCE premiered at Tribeca Film Festival on June 12, 2022, and will be released in theaters on July 29, 2022.
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